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Spiritual warfare: Enduring it
If I’m honest, I’d never thought much about spiritual warfare. Pastoral ministry in general, and church planting in particular, certainly brought their fair share of challenges, but I’m not prone to attribute every frustration to a cosmic battle or blame Satan for the pain I experience.
One day, while reading Craig Ott and Gene Wilson’s book, Global Church Planting, I was immediately struck by the number of times they spoke about spiritual warfare. I’d not read much about it in the church planting books written by Americans and addressing the planting needs in North America. But in a book on church planting around the world, spiritual warfare was mentioned as a key factor to watch out for as you prepare to plant, a reality that shapes your early experiences as a planter and your sense of calling, and an influence that is prone to derail pastors and churches from start to finish.
I began to reflect on my experience as a planter and pastor. Perhaps I was prone to the same mistake I noticed in the books I read—I simply ignored a theme that was pervasive throughout church planting efforts around the world and, more than that, was central to how the Bible speaks about the plight of all of God’s people in a fallen world.
My stories aren’t what’s important. If you are a pastor, you have them as well. Often they come in the form of mundane experiences that undermine your passion or effectiveness, temptations that destroy your zeal and integrity, mental battles you can’t seem to win, even people who stand opposed to the good work God has called you to pursue. These experiences not always spiritual warfare—but sometimes (or many times) they are. So, how do you and I bear up under the inevitable battle that is spiritual warfare?
For me, the first step was to recognize it. I didn’t want to attribute everything to spiritual warfare, so I didn’t attribute anything to it. As a result, I was often fighting the wrong battle. I was a kid trying to win a soccer game by playing basketball. The object, opponent and rules are altogether different if I recognize spiritual warfare for what it is. Rather than this evil person, this painful experience, or these fleeting thought, my actual enemy was “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers. . . against the spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12). Recognizing spiritual warfare allowed me to have a mental category for my experiences that then shaped how I should respond.
This reality goes hand-in-hand with the necessity to recognize spiritual warfare. Once I begin to recognize it for what it is, I realize how pervasive it actually is in my life. And, once I have a grasp of its frequency, I can begin to expect it to come. In fact, I can acknowledge the reality that it is always present. This seems to be Paul’s point in Ephesians 6. We need the whole armor of God, not because spiritual warfare might come, but because it most certainly will. This was perhaps the greatest struggle for me as I stepped into pastoral ministry. I was simply unprepared for the nature of the fight. So, I was caught off guard time and time again when I’d face challenges for which I had no answer or for which the answers I had simply didn’t work. The longer I pastor, the more I expect spiritual warfare to be a regular, ongoing part of my reality, which helps me avoid being sucker-punched when it comes.
It may seem counter-intuitive to argue that we should fight something in order to endure it. Most often I think of endurance as the act of just getting through something. It’s my experience in the dentist’s chair—I know this is unavoidable and I hate it, so I’m just going to sit back, close my eyes, think about something else and pray it’s over soon. But, this can’t be our posture with spiritual warfare. The enemy is too strong, the fight to intense and the stakes too great. Paul’s counsel isn’t passive endurance; it’s active. “Take up the whole armor of God so that you can stand against (or fight)” (Ephesians 6:11). The descriptions that Paul uses of this armor make it clear that this fight isn’t something merely for a few select spiritual giants, but it is the wardrobe of the Christian life itself. It’s things we should all be doing, all of the time. My fight is won or lost based on whether or not I do those basis marks of Christian discipleship. Do I love truth, pursue righteousness, spread peace, rely on faith, trust in salvation and battle with the Word? An affirmative answer to these questions gives me the confidence I need to know that I’m doing all I can when spiritual warfare comes my way. And, praise God, because of Jesus, I’ve also got someone far greater than me fighting on my behalf.